The Shade of Swords
Jihad and the Conflict between Islam and Christianity
by M. J. Akbar
Routledge, $25, 272 pp.
Muslim Indian journalist M. J. Akbar sets out to chronicle the history of "jihad" (popularly but sometimes misleadingly translated as "holy war") from the seventh century to the present day. His purpose is to provide a context for understanding what he calls "one Islamic response to the perceived world-domination by the United States...[J]ihad stands out through its ability to shift the tides of history on a day like 11 September 2001." Disturbingly, his explanation of the religious context of the September 11 terrorist attacks amounts to an encomium honoring jihad in its most literal and violent manifestations as a vital part of the Islamic faith.
Akbar chooses to explain jihad by celebrating the military triumphs of the Prophet Muhammad and the victories scored by Saladin during the Crusades. In dealing with the latter topic, the author (quite rightly) emphasizes Muslim chivalry in contrast to crusader brutality-even though he brings little that is new to the subject, insofar as he relies heavily on recently published English-language secondary sources. Akbar recalls the protection afforded religious minorities by medieval Muslim emirs and then details the savagery visited on "Saracens" and heretics in Christian states of the Middle Ages. A salutary reminder, all of this, given the hostile comments about Islam made by certain Christian leaders in our country.